Did you know that Philadelphia has its own gay chamber of commerce? Now two years old with more than 100 members, the Independence Business Alliance is Greater Philadelphia’s LGBT chamber of commerce.
Bill Gehrman, small-business owner and president of the IBA, is excited about what the group brings to his beloved city and community. As a former marketing director for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, Gehrman is one of the city’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. We got him to put his pom poms down for a moment to tell us a little about himself, the IBA and the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
PGN: You are such a vocal supporter of the city — you must be from somewhere else ... BG: Nope, I was born in South Philly. Though I have to admit, we moved to Wallingford in Delaware County when I was about 2.
PGN: What did your parents do? BG: My father worked in computers at Boeing and my mother taught at Swarthmore High School.
PGN: Did you have your mother as a teacher? BG: No, I went to a private school, Archmere Academy in Delaware. But I wouldn’t have had her anyway. She was a stay-at-home mom when I was growing up. After I graduated, she decided to go back to school and get a teaching degree. She did teach my youngest brother and sister. I’m the oldest of four: I have two brothers and a baby sister.
PGN: So why did you go to a different school? BG: I was very shy as a kid and wasn’t very, uh, comfortable socially. I was a loner and stayed on the fringe, so my parents thought I might do better with a smaller school. They were right. I really loved Archmere and discovered the performing arts there, which really helped my self-confidence.
PGN: Where did you go to college? BG: Syracuse University in upstate New York.
PGN: Sounds cold. BG: Yes, it was. My freshman year it snowed on Oct. 15 and my junior year we had a few flakes on graduation day in June. I went there for the Newhouse School. I wanted to study broadcast journalism and be an international correspondent on TV. But I went to a few lectures given by the chairman of the advertising department and really liked the field. I met with her and said, “I want a 9-5 job in the corporate world, where I have to wear a suit and tie, but I don’t want any two days to ever be the same.” She suggested I try advertising and I loved it.
PGN: What’s the most interesting job you’ve had? BG: I drove the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile for a year. It was a fantastic job: We went from Maine to North Carolina. Imagine being paid to travel around and give people free stuff.
PGN: When did you come back to Philly? BG: About eight years ago. I have always been a huge Philly fan. Even when I lived in Syracuse, I always spoke about wanting to find a way to promote the city I loved. In 1998, I got hired by PCVB as the director of publications. It was a dream job. I was in charge of the visitor’s guide so I got to know everything that was going on in the city. I worked there for six years and eventually became the director of marketing. It really got me involved in the tourism business. I started my own business so that I could use the bank of knowledge I’d gained at PCVB to focus and marketing and tourism. PGN: So what does the company do? BG: My company is called En Route Consulting. I work primarily with museums and destinations, helping them come up with marketing plans to bring in groups, especially niche groups. We’ll work on bringing in older coach groups or gay and lesbian tourism, anything to build the business. I also have clients like the Mural Arts Program: I helped them with the Mural Arts Month in October and helped organize their 25th anniversary, which is a 13-month celebration, and the mural-arts trolley tours they have going on now.
PGN: What are the challenges of being a business owner? BG: When you are a sole entity like me, you don’t get much down time because you don’t have any backup. It’s all on you. My boyfriend and I went to Puerto Rico in January and it was the first time I turned my Blackberry off and put it in the safe for four days. But I like working for myself, because you can follow the opportunities you want. I get to do so many neat things.
PGN: Tell me about the IBA. BG: The Independence Business Alliance is the new LGBT chamber of commerce for the Greater Philadelphia region. When I was at PCVB, I got invited to a conference of the national GLBT chamber of commerce. I just figured it was a good way to network, but I was amazed to see how large and organized it was. There were chapters all over, the oldest being the Golden Gate Business Association of San Francisco, which has been around for over 35 years. I would go to all the national meetings even though we didn’t have a chapter, just to see what they were doing. Eventually we got a group together in 2006 and created a chapter here.
PGN: What are the benefits of joining? BG: We concentrate on four areas: business development, marketing, representation and community building. For instance, we provide a lot of networking opportunities, we do a lot of business development - speakers and workshops about everything from taxes to insurance to marketing and social media in Philly. We can help get health insurance for individuals or small businesses through our relationship with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce; we have discounts to UPS, Staples and a lot of other business-related companies. It’s also community building. I think we can make a lot of social change using a business model. Businesses learn that employees who are comfortable at the workplace without fear of discrimination make better employees. I really believe in it: Even though it’s volunteer for me, I spend about 40 percent of my time in the IBA. It’s a second job!
PGN: Tell me about coming out. BG: I look around me now and it’s amazing that I’m the president of a gay organization and so involved with the community. I’m as out as you can be, but it took me a long time. I’m like an after-school special. I really struggled with it as a kid, and even through college. I’ve only been out for about 12 years. In school I had a great time, but there was always something missing. I dated girls and had friends, but I was depressed. I came out to myself at 23, but didn’t want to tell my family. I wasn’t comfortable yet and I didn’t want to tell them until I felt I could say that I didn’t want to change back. The great part is when I did finally come out to my family at 27, they were fine with it. My parents were great, my siblings were great, even my 97-year-old grandmother loved it. Now, I’m ecstatic. It’s as if my life started at 27. I love being gay and part of the community! It has opened up so many opportunities for me.
PGN: Like what? BG: When I was working at PCVB, I got to travel internationally to promote gay tourism. As part of the IBA, I got to be on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, I got to go to the White House as a guest of President Obama. Since he’s been in office he’s really been involved with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, working on a lot of different issues with us. We got invited to a reception on small-business loans. I was like, “Wow, I’m in the White House because I work with gay businesses. Who would have thought?” I also went to Argentina as a member of the gay soccer team. It’s incredible: I found a wonderful boyfriend, I have a great job. Even on my job it’s a plus: Clients hear that I have connections in the gay market and they get all excited. It’s just amazing. It’s gone from being a horrible, horrible thing for me to providing so many opportunities. Life is good.
For more information on the IBA, visit www.independencebusinessalliance.com.